We live in an era of at-a-glance numerical assessment. Metacritic, CinemaScores, Rotten Tomatoes, and box office opening weekend tallies are the metrics we check before buying a movie ticket. Too many consumers of film have become dependent on those numbers and wrongly assume that hitting the right score automatically equals greatness. For people who go to the movies for a comfortable fantasy that everything in life will work out fine, that the scrappy underdog will always prevail and the bad guys always get caught, those favorable numbers are reassuring. They’re not interested in paying 12 bucks to be reminded of global warming or racism or violence against women. We each of us pick and prod our dioramas according to the movies and messages we seek, hoping to turn those stories into our ideal image of what best represents us — all of us — a too often purist ideal of what our society should be, but isn’t. But this strict adherence to conventional rules of culture or comforting narratives has resulted in an annual replay in Hollywood of sticking to what’s always worked before: pre-awareness, branding, sequels, remakes. Movies play it safe again and again. Sometimes these sure bets make a shit-ton of money and are deemed a success. Sometimes they falter and don’t hit their mark. This summer, for instance, has the industry in a panic that their formula has failed. Maybe we need to reassess the risk of spent $150 million on a formula that used to work but now falters so often. Maybe it’s time to rethink the cynical attitudes of what audiences will buy into, and work harder to find new ways to risk those millions.
Darren Aronofsky has made a film that required taking another sort of risk. He has earned that luxury, having proven his ability to make provocative films with modest budgets that can triple or quadruple their studio investment. Then came Black Swan, a high-Gothic, psychosexual thriller made for just $13 million and returning $329 million, which joined his finest films in making a mark on the cultural landscape. There are a lot of things you can say about Aronofsky’s latest high-risk endeavor mother!, but not making its mark isn’t one of them. Of all of the films released so far this year, this one probably has people talking in ways that movies used to inspire us to talk but really don’t anymore. Why? Because movies have become so expensive to make, they need to play it safe. So many critics on Rotten Tomatoes seem to judge movies like they might judge a new house: is it well built? Is it “even” or level or smooth? Does it include all the familiar necessities we expect? The more intellectual critics will allow for experimentation beyond that — after all, if a movie works, it works. I remember being a kid and people talking about films like The Exorcist that had people throwing up in aisles or running out of the theater. It’s been a long while since a movie made by a major Hollywood studio did that to audiences. It’s damned exciting to see it again.
mother! took me places where studios once dared to go but rarely do anymore. Watching and absorbing this astonishing parable unfold, I had no idea what might to happen from moment to moment, but I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. By the time events onscreen started to spiral beyond all sense or reason, I had no idea where I was or what the film was trying to tell me. But as it passed from the realm of what-the-hell-is-happening to my-god-this-cannot-be-happening, it became clear that Aronofsky was doing what he does so well — walking us through a horrifying dreamscape. To say mother! unfolds like a living nightmare on film is one way to see it, and perhaps another way is to realize humanity’s reign on our planet has been a living nightmare on Earth — with all the attendant beauty and devastation that has entailed.
Even though he took us so far out there that we lose our bearings, Aronofsky miraculously holds it all together, partly by inserting overt signposts to guide us through it. In those symbols some see religion. Others saw a clash between the natural world and man’s effort to control it. Still others saw a dark rendition of an artist’s process, if not Aronfosky own life, perhaps the life of all artists, of any creator (or Creator). In the end, one of the most resonant messages I took from mother! is that women devotedly create life while men carelessly destroy it. After all, throughout the history of mankind, because men have held power to make civilization’s ominous decisions, most of the humans who have abused the environment, subjected animals to cruelty, and subjugated women have been men (yes, there are women who have been complicit in this and mother! shows us disturbing examples of those women too). On the whole though, we know that most gun violence is committed by men, and wars are started by and fought by men. As for religion’s role in all this, whether God created Man in his image, or if the reverse is true — you can find arguments for each stance in mother!
Mainly, I think the point needs be emphasized that art like this just doesn’t get made anymore on the scale that only filmmakers can do. So no matter our interpretations, no matter our judgments, we should celebrate its creation. We should feel lucky to have visionary directors like Darren Aronofsky, and feel grateful to Paramount for standing behind his bold vision. We should be proud of Jennifer Lawrence for taking such a chance on a project so risky, all the more because she risked alienating her expectant fans by upending their expectations.
I loved mother! myself. I know I will go back to watch it again and again. I loved Jennifer Lawrence in it. I loved the house. I loved Michelle Pfeiffer. I loved the sound design, of all things. To me it was a rich cinematic experience, a moving painting, unlike anything I have ever experienced before. How could anyone complain about that? Well, some have complained. The film has been hit with the rare “F” from the 400 or so individuals surveyed by CinemaScore, and it earned less in its opening weekend than was hoped (having Breitbart lie as to stir controversy as it always does, and falsely claim that Jennifer Lawrence said this year’s hurricanes are Mother Nature’s wrath on Trump surely didn’t help ticket sales). But true movie lovers should feel confident that Aronofsky has given us something that people will be talking about for decades to come. I can promise you that. Movies like this don’t come around very often, not like they used to way back when.
Art has the power to compel us to witness spectacles both beautiful and ugly. It has to power to make us think, inspire dreams, and give us nightmares. It has the power to challenge our perception of reality. So here’s to Darren Aronofsky and his wild, brazen, primal creativity. And here’s to Paramount for saying fuck it, let’s do this. And cheers to Jennifer Lawrence for helping to get it made on the clout of her profitable reputation. Let’s never forget that moviemaking should be so much more than a highly refined profit machine. Let’s forever be thankful that cinema can produce art like this.